We can’t seem to escape narrative. We live through experience and our experience is our own narrative. When we recall or engage in anything we are helpless to forming our own narrative around it. Attempts to get at the truth of the matter are usually through academic discourse but even then, we see the impartial fall way to hidden grand narratives. Whilst trying to refrain from engaging in those narratives is a worthy cause, one that holds the key to removing prejudice via objectivity. It is not the only way of doing things.
Non-fiction and Documentaries alike, often try and present themselves as factual and with a degree of impartiality. This gives them a sense of authority as they appear beyond reproach. Unfortunately while the intent behind these undertakings is likely pure, the societal context that these things exist within cannot be removed. We are unable to spot our biases and it is this that makes them so damaging. It is the reason why old documentaries can appear racist despite clearly presenting a face of impartiality.
One way to get around this is to make clear the narrative you are undertaking, to explicitly bring your biases and to take part in the thing you are documenting. These kind of documentaries present reality as we experience it, without impartiality. In this way they can claim a certain kind of truth. This can double up as making the work itself more engaging as people, in living one themselves, are naturally attracted to narrative. An excellent example of this is the Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer. The film follows mass murderer Anwar Congo. Instead of impartiality it implicates him in a narrative of guilt. Joshua asks Anwar to make a film of his exploits and in doing so lets him not just implicate himself but actually engage with that repressed guilt. The film has a beginning, middle and end, it has a story, but it enhances the documentary element rather than hindering it.
The Act of Killing is an exceptional example of modern documentary and should be held up as such, but it is not without danger. The risk that this doing away with impartiality presents is of not giving a narrative naturally born of your interaction with the situation, but instead one entirely created and fictionalised for the sake of maintaining interest. The distinction of this falsification and misinformation is blurred in documentary that embraces its narrative. It can lead to modern day myths and legends gaining strength and it can be put to use as propaganda. In the news world, this embrace of narrative for the sake of ratings has led to people being unable to distinguish fact from opinion. In an age fraught with potentially catastrophic dangers such as global warming, this poses genuine risks for everyone, particularly those not in positions of power.
As a collective we are still unable to agree upon the truth of things but that doesn’t mean we should give up. If there is no repercussion for lying then it only makes sense to present the narrative that benefits yourself and those around you, to yourself and those around you. Our primary source for validating everyday “facts” lies in popularity. In the right hands popularity can be easily swayed. Ideas that appeal to reducing personal suffering and increasing personal happiness (often in the form of shirking responsibility) are easier to popularise than ideas primarily born of rationality.
This is where science receives its distinction from other schools of thought. The scientific method makes an active attempt to remove popularising elements. It doesn’t necessarily succeed, but it tries. News moves too fast for the scientific method but that’s not to say it could not be used retroactively to create repercussions for the consistent embellishment of real events towards chosen narratives. A democratic flagging system may not be ideal since everyone isn’t an expert in everything but it may be preferable to a designated one since putting censorship into the hands of the powerful is always dubious. The BBC is one of the few enterprises that comes to mind that attempts something like this and I believe it has a lot of respect thanks to that. I would be interested to see if something like this would be a viable business proposition for news and documentary networks.
As a viewer the important thing is to consider all parties involved whilst also respecting their knowledge on the subject at hand. One expert is dangerous but a collective in agreement is worth taking heed of. Hopefully we can move on from being “tired of experts” so that we can enjoy non fiction without having to always be so wary of it.